Do we really know our organisation?

We have been getting more into the subject of identity as individuals, particularly in our work lives. This is an important part of understanding the ‘soft stuff’ that is increasingly critical to successful lives.

And there is a similar search for organisational identity kicking off in discussions about purpose.

This blog suggests one way to approach this difficult subject drawing inspiration from the work of Atul Gawande who showed how much positive force can come from the checklist – a tool that appears rather humble but packs a punch.

My organisational identity checklist has eight items on it. Why so many? Our lives are increasingly complex,  meaning that there are always many factors that should be thought through; we will make avoidable errors by omitting any items in the list. The check-list helps us avoid those errors.

The organisational identity checklist

1. Purpose and value | What purpose(s) we serve and what we see as the value that our organisation exists to create.
2. Mission and vision | Why we exist and what we want to be.
3. Stakeholders | What is the domain, priorities and boundaries of our reach and influence.
4. Values | What we believe in and how we will behave.
5. Culture | How does our organization think and behave, how does leadership behave.
6. Investment beliefs | What do we believe about the investment landscape and our edge to inform our strategy.
7. Organisational beliefs | What do we believe about our organisational context (governance, stakeholders, mission, etc.) to inform our strategy including our endowments as an organisation.
8. Strategy | What is our competitive game plan – thinking ahead, employing our beliefs, reflecting uncertainty, creating value.

Four features are worth noting based on my experiences with using this list in asset manager and asset owner contexts.

First, these points are very connected, even overlapping in places, and should be judged together. An example: mission is derived from purpose.

Second, some of these elements are substantially enduring, but some are significantly evolving. The more enduring elements are headed by purpose but even this factor is subject to some change occasionally. Here the purpose may undergo a generational shift, and then it endures perhaps for another generation. We have written about accelerating change in our industry which certainly has a bearing on these factors. The beliefs certainly should be evolving more quickly over time to reflect new circumstances, and as a result the review cycle for these points should have a faster cadence.

Third, the critical thinking applied to these points needs to be in collective settings, particularly in boards and in top leadership teams. The attention given to this subject has been squeezed by more urgent agendas, we should make more of agendas selected on importance.

The final point is that the apparent dryness of a checklist can yield an interesting and compelling narrative brought to life by good stories and prose. Stories from organisational pasts are particularly relevant to identity. History informs many dimensions of contemporary organisational identity, particularly culture. My two favourite document examples are Baillie Gifford – Our shared beliefs; and Google – Ten things we know to be true.

In my view organisations are set to change a lot in the coming decade. They should use an identity checklist to set their change process on sound foundations.

Roger Urwin